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Battle at the Bridge

Anna Story about a long term feud and endless brutal fistfights between two girls from an industry area of San Francisco.
The story told by one of the grown scrappers.
Rehash after Jack London's novel 'Martin Eden'

Remaking by Anna Sidanova

Русская версия

Drawing by Lilly Lefort
after a sketch from the National Police Gazette

attle at the Bridge

Story about a long term feud and endless brutal fistfights between two girls from an industry area of San Francisco. The story told by one of the grown scrappers. The story dates from 1910s.

Painful recollections rolled on Martina…

That girl was twelve and Martina was just ten when they engaged in a fight for the first time. Since then, the blind hatred between them didn’t quiet down for years. They were two tomboys who eventually became ringleaders of gangs of boys. Martina was a lively sinewy girl while the older one named The Haunch was a robust girl with massive hips. Before that fight Haunch came to blow only with boys – very few wanted that though. Martina once witnessed how Haunch beat a coeval boy to a pulp leaving him bleeding on the ground. Having massive bottom, fighting Haunch literally grew into the ground, so it was very difficult to knock her down. She was a guileful merciless bully – an out-and-out fighter.

By picking a quarrel with Martina without any reasons, Haunch just demonstrated who was a chieftain there – probably she felt a potential life rival in her. The first defeat was not lost on Martina – she just realized that the only chance to beat big balanced Haunch is to manage to smash her face. That time Martina didn’t have anything to return to the offender and was bitterly beaten. However, all their following battles were different and didn't remind girlish catfights – just brutal fist fights…

…The vision of that first fight still lingered under Martina’s eyelids, and as she watched she saw it dissolve and reshape into the series of fights which had followed. Six months later Haunch had whipped her again. But she had blacked Haunch’s eye that time. That was going some. She saw them all, fight after fight, herself always whipped and Haunch exulting over her. But she had never run away. She felt strengthened by the memory of that. She had always stayed and taken her medicine. Haunch had been a little fiend at fighting, and had never once shown mercy to her. But she had stayed! She had stayed with it!

Since Martina started fighting with Haunch, she lost all her girl friends, which began to pass her by. Unlike girls, boys from the neighborhood recognized her as a leader not letting other boys to touch her. Haunch was enough for her though…

Martina was envious of boys – female attire was not too convenient for fighting. Besides, after each fight she had to sew up and wash off her smock. After a while, Martina hit upon an idea to put on an bridge for fighting in order to save her working smock. So did Haunch. That’s why their fights were named “bridge battles”.

She was eleven, and Haunch was thirteen, and they both carried the Enquirer along with boys. That was why they were there, waiting for their papers. And, of course, Haunch had picked on her again, and there was another fight that was indeterminate, because at quarter to four the door of the press-room was thrown open and the gang of boys crowded in to fold their papers. “I’ll lick you tomorrow,” she heard Haunch promise; and she heard her own voice, piping and trembling with unshed tears, agreeing to be there on the morrow.

And she had come there the next day, hurrying from school to be there first, and beating Haunch by two minutes. The boys said she was all right, and gave her advice, pointing out her faults as a scrapper and promising her victory if she carried out their instructions. The same boys gave Haunch advice, too. How they had enjoyed the fight! she paused in her recollections long enough to envy them the spectacle she and Haunch had put up. Then the fight was on, and it went on, without rounds, for thirty minutes, until the press-room door was opened.

It seemed centuries since she had begun the round of daily fights, and time stretched away into a nightmare and infinite future of daily fights. Why couldn't Haunch be licked? she often thought; that would put her, Martina, out of her misery. It never entered her head to cease fighting, to allow Haunch to whip her.

And so she dragged herself to the ENQUIRER alley, sick in body and soul, but learning the long patience, to confront her eternal enemy, Haunch, who was just as sick as she, and just a bit willing to quit if it were not for the gang of newsboys that looked on and made pride painful and necessary. One afternoon, after twenty minutes of desperate efforts to annihilate each other according to set rules that did not permit kicking, striking below the belt or hitting breasts, nor hitting when one was down, Haunch, panting for breath and reeling, offered to call it quits. And Martina, head on arms, thrilled at the picture she caught of herself, at that moment in the afternoon of long ago, when she reeled and panted and choked with the blood that ran into her mouth and down her throat from her cut lips; when she tottered toward Haunch, spitting out a mouthful of blood so that she could speak, crying out that she would never quit, though Haunch could give in if she wanted to. And Haunch did not give in, and the fight went on.

The next day and the next, days without end, witnessed the afternoon fight. When she put up her arms, each day, to begin, they pained exquisitely, and the first few blows, struck and received, racked her soul; after that things grew numb, and she fought on blindly, seeing as in a dream, dancing and wavering, the large features and burning, animal-like eyes of Haunch. She concentrated upon that face; all else about her was a whirling void. There was nothing else in the world but that face, and she would never know rest, blessed rest, until she had beaten that face into a pulp with her bleeding knuckles, or until the bleeding knuckles that somehow belonged to that face had beaten her into a pulp. And then, one way or the other, she would have rest. But to quit, - for her, Martina, to quit, - that was impossible!

Came the day when she dragged herself into the ENQUIRER alley, and there was no Haunch. Nor did Haunch come. The boys congratulated her, and told her that she had licked Haunch. But Martina was not satisfied. She had not licked Haunch, nor had Haunch licked her. The problem had not been solved. It was not until afterward that they learned that Haunch’s father had died suddenly that very day.

Martina skipped on through the years to the night in the nigger heaven at the Auditorium. She was seventeen and dressed up for the show, in evening boots. A row started. Martina found herself confronted by Haunch’s blazing eyes.

"I'll fix you after de show," her ancient enemy hissed.
Martina nodded.

"I'll meet you outside, after the last act," Martina whispered, the while her face showed undivided interest in the buck-and-wing dancing on the stage.
The bouncer glared and went away.

"Got a gang?" she asked Haunch, at the end of the act.
"Then I got to get one," Martina announced.
Between the acts she mustered her following - three fellows she knew, a railroad fireman, and half a dozen of the Boo Gang, along with as many more from the dread Eighteen-and-Market Gang.

When the theatre let out, the two gangs strung along inconspicuously on opposite sides of the street. When they came to a quiet corner, they united and held a council of war.

"Eighth Street Bridge is the place," said a red-headed fellow belonging to Haunch’s Gang. "You kin fight in the middle, under the electric light, an' whichever way the bulls come in we kin sneak the other way."

"That's agreeable to me," Martina said, after consulting with the leaders of her own gang.

The Eighth Street Bridge, crossing an arm of San Antonio Estuary, was the length of three city blocks. In the middle of the bridge, and at each end, were electric lights. No policeman could pass those end-lights unseen. It was the safe place for the battle that revived itself under Martina's eyelids. She saw the two gangs, aggressive and sullen, rigidly keeping apart from each other and backing their respective champions; and she saw herself and Haunch taking off hats. A short distance away lookouts were set, their task being to watch the lighted ends of the bridge. A member of the Boo Gang held Martina's hat, ready to race with it into safety in case the police interfered. Martina watched herself go into the centre, facing Haunch, and she heard herself say, as she held up her hand warningly:

"They ain't no hand-shakin' in this. Understand? They ain't nothin' but scrap. No throwin' up the sponge. Ther is a grudge- fight an' it's to a finish. Understand? Somebody's goin' to get licked."

Haunch wanted to demur, - Martina could see that, - but Haunch’s old perilous pride was touched before the two gangs.

"Aw, come on," she replied. "Wot's the good of chewin' de rag about it? I'm wit' cheh to de finish."

Then they fell upon each other, like young wild lionesses, in all the glory of youth, with naked fists, with hatred, with desire to hurt, to maim, to destroy. All the painful, thousand years' gains of man in her upward climb through creation were lost. Only the electric light remained, a milestone on the path of the great human adventure. Martina and Haunch were two savages, of the stone age, of the squatting place and the tree refuge. Having forgotten instinct of self-preservation and maternal instinct, they sank lower and lower into the muddy abyss, back into the dregs of the raw beginnings of life, striving blindly and chemically, as atoms strive, as the star-dust if the heavens strives, colliding, recoiling, and colliding again and eternally again.

"God! We are animals! Brute-beasts!" Martina muttered aloud, as she watched the progress of the fight. It was to her, with her splendid power of vision, like gazing into a kinetoscope. She was both onlooker and participant. Her long months of culture and refinement shuddered at the sight; then the present was blotted out of her consciousness and the ghosts of the past possessed her, and she was that Martina, fighting Haunch on the Eighth Street Bridge. She suffered and toiled and sweated and bled, and exulted when her naked knuckles smashed home.

They were twin whirlwinds of hatred, revolving about each other monstrously. The time passed, and the two hostile gangs became very quiet. They had never witnessed such intensity of ferocity, and they were awed by it. The two fighters were greater brutes than they. The first splendid velvet edge of youth and condition wore off, and they fought more cautiously and deliberately. There had been no advantage gained either way. "It's anybody's fight," Martina heard some one saying. Then she followed up a feint, right and left, was fiercely countered, and felt her cheek laid open to the bone. No bare knuckle had done that. She heard mutters of amazement at the ghastly damage wrought, and was drenched with her own blood. But she gave no sign. She became immensely wary, for she was wise with knowledge of the low cunning and foul vileness of her kind. She watched and waited, until she feigned a wild rush, which she stopped midway, for she had seen the glint of metal.

"Hold up yer hand!" she screamed. "Them's brass knuckles, an' you hit me with 'em!"
Both gangs surged forward, growling and snarling. In a second there would be a free-for-all fight, and she would be robbed of her vengeance. She was beside herself.
"You guys keep out!" she screamed hoarsely. "Understand? Say, d'ye understand?"
They shrank away from her. They were brutes, but she was the arch-brute, a thing of terror that towered over them and dominated them.
"Ther is my scrap, an' they ain't goin' to be no buttin' in. Gimme them knuckles."
Haunch, sobered and a bit frightened, surrendered the foul weapon.
"You passed 'em to her, you red-head sneakin' in behind the push there," Martina went on, as she tossed the knuckles into the water.
"I seen you, an' I was wonderin' what you was up to. If you try anything like that again, I'll beat cheh to death. Understand?"
Uncombed, in dirty tattered dresses, they fought on, through exhaustion and beyond, to exhaustion immeasurable and inconceivable, until the crowd of brutes, its blood-lust sated, terrified by what it saw, begged them impartially to cease. And Haunch, ready to drop and die, or to stay on her legs and die, a grisly monster out of whose features all likeness to Haunch had been beaten, wavered and hesitated; but Martina sprang in and smashed her again and again.

Next, after a seeming century or so, with Haunch weakening fast, in a mix-up of blows there was a loud snap, and Martina's right arm dropped to her side. It was a broken bone. Everybody heard it and knew; and Haunch knew, rushing like a tigress in the other's extremity and raining blow on blow. Martina's gang surged forward to interfere. Dazed by the rapid succession of blows, Martina warned them back with vile and earnest curses sobbed out and groaned in ultimate desolation and despair.

She punched on, with her left hand only, and as she punched, doggedly, only half-conscious, as from a remote distance she heard murmurs of fear in the gangs, and one who said with shaking voice: "Ther ain't a scrap, fellows. It's murder, an' we ought to stop it."

But no one stopped it, and she was glad, punching on wearily and endlessly with her one arm, battering away at a bloody something before her that was not a face but a horror, an oscillating, hideous, gibbering, nameless thing that persisted before her wavering vision and would not go away. And she punched on and on, slower and slower, as the last shreds of vitality oozed from her, through centuries and aeons and enormous lapses of time, until, in a dim way, she became aware that the nameless thing was sinking, slowly sinking down to the rough board-planking of the bridge. And the next moment she was standing over it, staggering and swaying on shaky legs, clutching at the air for support, and saying in a voice she did not recognize:

"D'ye want any more? Say, d'ye want any more?"
She was still saying it, over and over, - demanding, entreating, threatening, to know if it wanted any more, - when she felt the fellows of her gang laying hands on her, patting her on the back and trying to throw a coat over her. And then came a sudden rush of blackness and oblivion…

September 2007

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